Yahweh’s Divine Council in 2nd Isaiah

One of the godfathers of semitic studies, Frank Moore Cross Jr., wrote a piece in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies in 1953: “The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, (12) 1953, 274-277.

Here I reproduce a part of this article. Isaiah 40:1-8 is generally recognized today by biblical scholars as being a divine council scene. With this in mind, traditional ultra-monotheistic interpretations of various Second Isaiah passages must be revised.

The symbolism of the council of Yahweh forms the background also of several oracles of Second Isaiah (and related material). These belong to an oracle type (Gattung) which may be described as divine directives to angelic heralds, or the closely related category, the divine proclamation delivered by a herald.

Isa. 40:1-8 is a parade example of this literary form in Second Isaiah. The passage opens with an unusual series of active imperatives, plural: nahamu, dabberu, qiru, “comfort ye,” “speak ye,” “proclaim ye.” The problem of the identity of the subject of these imperatives has baffled commentators. Traditionally it has been held that Yahweh here directs “prophets in general,” Israel’s priests, or the remnant of the faithful to proclaim the message of consolation. That such interpretation are forced has been recognized by most moderns…..Rather, the setting is the heavenly council in which Yahweh addresses his heralds, nahamu, nahamu, ammi, “comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” That such is the dramatic background of the passage is immediately confirmed by the following verses in which herald voices (introduced qol qore or qol omer) are heard proclaiming the divine message quite as directed in verses 1 and 2. Their proclamation announces the imminence of Yahweh’s appearance in acts of redemption and, more specifically, directs preparations for a “superhighway” on which Yahweh will march through a transformed desert at the head of his people. This herald proclamation in verses 3 and 4, to level hills and raise valleys, is directed to supernatural beings, to the council of Yahweh. This is indicated in the cosmic scale of the preparations for the divine theophany and is substantiated by Malachi’s comment (3:1): “Behold I send my messenger and he shall prepare the way for me.”

In verses 6-8 an anonymous herald addresses the prophet, announcing to him his inaugural oracle, “All flesh is grass…but the word of our God shall stand forever.” Verse 6a is to read with the versions and the new Dead Sea Isaiah (A), “A (herald) voice said, ‘Proclaim’; and I said, ‘What shall I proclaim?’” The parallel to Isa. 6:1-8 is remarkable.

It is strange that the full force of the symbolism of Yahweh’s council in the opening verses of chapter 40 has not been recognized.

 

Cross also briefly examines Isa 48:20-21; 57:14; 35:3-4; and he mentions Isa 52:1-10; 62:10-12; cf. 44:26; and 40:26. Cross addresses each of these passage as being “of like literary type.”

The very section of Isaiah which mainstream Christians most point to for evidence of their metaphysical monotheism begins with a divine council scene, a scene which presupposes the existence of multiple divine beings. Some Christians may argue that these council members are angels, or some kind of being that is ontologically different from Yahweh. Unfortunately, such an ad hoc twist is completely unwarranted by the scriptures. That these divine beings in Yahweh’s council are of the same basic species as Yahweh is taken for granted by the biblical authors, and is supported by data from Ugarit.

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6 comments on “Yahweh’s Divine Council in 2nd Isaiah

  1. I agree that the irony’s amusing that traditional Christians would use this text to justify radical monotheism. Isaiah is probably rolling over in his grave (or doing double-takes in his celestialized body).

  2. Tsquare says:

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do :)

  3. dale ben prindle says:

    You said,
    “Some Christians may argue that these council members are angels, or some kind of being that is ontologically different from Yahweh. Unfortunately, such an ad hoc twist is completely unwarranted by the scriptures.”

    How so? This assertion seems completely unwarranted. I do not see any evidence of indication that members of Yhwh’s council were considered ontologically equal to Yhwh or even divine. They play a supportive role within the OT, and are rarely given description—as the book of Daniel would be the exception. They are there to give counsel to Yhwh, as well as obey his voice. Never do we see Yhwh submitting to the will of one of the members. But the members of the council always surround Yhwh and his will.

    You continued,
    “That these divine beings in Yahweh’s council are of the same basic species as Yahweh is taken for granted by the biblical authors, and is supported by data from Ugarit.”

    You cannot assume that a Ugaritic depiction and understanding of the assembly of El is synonymous with orthodox-Yhwhism’s understanding (i.e. the OT). That is a basic fallacy. Though there may be similarities, and understanding other ANE “councils” may shed light on the OT’s depiction and understanding, it should also reveal the distinctions and how the OT’s portrayal of Yhwh’s council is unique from surrounding depictions.

  4. James says:

    Thanks for your comments Dale. You described the “bene elohim” as playing a supportive role to Yahweh, as being rarely given a description, and as only counseling Yahweh. You mentioned that Yahweh never submits to any of them.

    I totally agree. That is how they are portrayed in the Old Testament. Yahweh’s council of gods are just that, Yahweh’s council. He is in charge, not them. However, that does not imply in any way that those gods are somehow of a separate species from Yahweh. You can’t get from A to B that way. Just because they are subordinate to him does not mean they are not fully divine beings just as he is.

    I wonder if perhaps our miscommunication lies in the word “god”. You may be scratching your head and wondering how anyone who is a “god” could possibly submit to the will of anyone else. You may have in mind a definition of “god” that is influenced by classical Greek thinking which dominated Christian thought for many centuries down to the present. This definition of “god” is one which insists that a “god” is an “unmoved mover” and who is impassible, transcendent, and who creates ex nihilo.

    This, however, is not a definition of the word “god” that we find anywhere in the scriptures. Regardless of whether or not you and I agree on what a “god” should or shouldn’t be, we can clearly see that in the Old Testament (especially) the “gods” are definitely considered to be “gods”, but they are subordinate to the chief god, Yahweh. The ancient Hebrews did not approach the word “god” with all the baggage that modern Christians do.

    I’ll agree with you that Ugaritic depictions of God and his council of gods don’t necessarily dictate how we should characterize the Israelite permutation of those beliefs. But, lacking data to the contrary, there is no good argument for interpreting the “gods” of Yahweh’s council as anything but “gods”.

    Anyway, after that long answer I’ll recommend that you read this article and the links provided: https://lehislibrary.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/is-yahweh-species-unique-heiser-bokovoy-discuss/

    Thanks!

    • dale ben prindle says:

      I am familiar with Heiser, and with the LDS critique to evangelical method (i.e. greek influences on theology). However, with this in consideration, I still see orthodox-Yhwhism (i.e. the writings of the OT) as mono-Yhwhism. Sure, the OT is polytheistic. But I do not see any evidence that in the OT of these other gods being of the same “species.” That is what I find incoherent. You said, “You may have in mind a definition of ‘god’ that is influenced by classical Greek thinking which dominated Christian thought for many centuries down to the present.” But you use a term which is post-enlightenment thought. Hebraic thought would have been in terms of “kind.” And it seems evident to me that Yhwh’s “kind” is seen unique to Yhwh alone, and that he is the source of all uniqueness. Maybe not outside of orthodox-Yhwhism. But for you and me, that is not important because we understand the OT to be something more than just another ANE document.
      Thank you for your polite and engaging demeanor. It is always better to discuss that way. :)

  5. James says:

    Hello again Dale.

    Sure, the concept of “species” is a modern one. I choose to use it because it is helpful and Heiser is the one who first used it.

    I can certainly agree that in a certain sense Yahweh is a different “kind” of god from the other gods. He claims to accomplish things that no other god accomplishes. But I think we go too far if we suggest that this means he is ontologically unique in the sense that he possesses attributes no other being can possess.

    I see the relationship of Yahweh to his council of gods as differences in degree, not in “kind”. An appropriate analogy would be a human king who is wiser, stronger, and commands more authority than all of his knights or counselors.

    At the very least we are admitting that Yahweh has a council of gods :) It wasn’t that long ago that Christian critics of Mormonism denied that very biblical idea (and I don’t know if you are a Christian or not).

    Thanks,
    James

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